Speaker by Various Artists

14

The light train to Roskill

by Simon Wilson

Is Andrew Little’s promise of light rail to Mr Roskill a byelection bribe? Does John Key have any idea at all what his own Auckland transport plan looks like?

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The barrier arms are coming down and the bells are going clang clang clang and there’s John Key, jumping out onto the railway tracks and going nah nah nah, that train’s not gonna hit me.

Maybe it won’t. But his statements yesterday about Labour’s proposal for light rail to Mt Roskill reveal a surprisingly casual disregard not just for the facts, but for his government’s own position.

Some people say, hey, it’s a by-election, they’re all going to bribe us and lie their heads off. But that’s not true. Labour is the favourite in this election but National has a decent chance. One year out from the general election, it’s a terrific opportunity for both parties to show us they are in functional order and for us to assess what the differences really are.

Opposition leader Andrew Little announced a Labour-led government would build light rail (that is, modern trams, running on tracks set into the roads) from Wynyard Quarter up Queen St and down Dominion Rd to Stoddart Rd in Mt Roskill. It would be done within 10 years, and paid for half by government from the existing long-term transport budget and half by council.

John Key straightaway dissed the plan. He even told RNZ’s Morning Report the “people best placed to decide these things” did not support it, and named the Auckland Council, Auckland Transport (an arm of council) and NZTA (a central government agency). He said these bodies had decided against fast-tracking light rail on the Auckland isthmus and were not even sure light rail is a good option at all. It might be, he said, that “rapid buses” are better.

His minister for regional development Steven Joyce called Little’s plan “pork barrel politics taken to a whole new level”.

What’s wrong with that?

Quite a lot. To start with, Key does not really believe the “best people” to decide Auckland transport policy are Auckland agencies. He believes the government is. If he thought Auckland should decide, he’d go ahead and legislate for that to happen.

Second, the government was not an uninvolved bystander in the decision on light rail he cited. The government drove the decision. Key was referring to the Auckland Transport Alignment Accord (ATAP), an agreement between the government and the council, announced just last month and involving AT, NZTA and others, over long-term transport planning in Auckland.

One of ATAP’s key decisions was to delay approval of and funding for light rail until after 2028. Key is right about that. But the government led the ATAP process. Finance Minister Bill English and Transport Minister Simon Bridges had the senior role in negotiations and it’s clear from my sources that it was they who insisted, against the wishes of council, that light rail not be advanced in the next 10 years.

Third, while Key is right that “rapid buses” are an option for rapid transit on some routes (no one now denies the spectacular success of the Northern Busway), he’s not right to imply they might be the long-term solution for the city. Buses carry far fewer people than trains, clog up the roadways and have nowhere to go when they get into town. Rapid bus transit is a transitional solution: the Northern Busway will one day become the Northern rail line.

The fourth problem with John Key’s response to Andrew Little’s announcement is what it reveals about the government’s approach to transport planning. There’s a split in their ranks.

ATAP is government policy – it’s a formal signed agreement between the central and local governments. As negotiated by English and Bridges it represents a clear commitment to a long-term plan that includes light rail and relies far more on public transport in general than used to be the case under this government.

But Key and Joyce have seemed almost unaware of all that. Their dismissive comments suggest “long-term”, to them, means “not our problem”. Joyce v English: it’s going to be like having a fascinating fight on the undercard as we head towards the main event, the general election.

As for the accusation of pork-barrel politics: promising to fast-track measures to address the city’s transport crisis is exactly what we need from our politicians. It’s not cynical, it’s not a bribe, and it’s not pie-in-the-sky nonsense like Joyce’s 10 bridges were in the Northland by-election last year. It’s an actual plan, already agreed to in principle by Joyce’s government, to address a real and very pressing problem.

And what about Andrew Little? What was wrong about what he said?

It made him look like he wasn’t onside with the new mayor, that’s what. Goff wasn’t even at the policy announcement, having run the 5km leg of the Auckland Marathon that morning and then gone home to strain fences, or whatever he does on Sunday afternoons on the Clevedon farm.

He did respond, though, by saying the council was not about to commit to a 50 per cent share in the cost of building the light rail line.

That was predictable. Goff has promised to keep rates rises under 2.5 per cent and is about to start work on the council’s next long-term plan (LTP). This is the 10-year budget that gets updated every three years. It would be absurd for him to announce a major funding commitment outside of that process.

But Goff is on record in favour of light rail on the isthmus.

Given the predictability of Goff’s response, why didn’t he and Little find a way to avoid the impression of a disagreement? Labour colleagues in Parliament for years – don’t these people talk?

That impasse raises the two biggest issues of the whole proposal. The first is that transport planning for Auckland will not progress much until new sources of funding are introduced. Central city congestion charges, motorway tolls, a regional fuel tax or other measures: none of them can happen unless the government legislates to allow it. Labour needs to renew its commitment to making that happen, or Little’s light rail proposal won’t be going anywhere.

The second big issue has been hinted at by both Little and Goff but not spelled out. Little said the government’s share of the cost could come from the strategic transport budget, which is currently reserved for roads. Goff said urban light rail could be regarded as a road of national significance, which would qualify it for 100 per cent government funding.

Both statements point to the fact that central government planning for roads and rail currently happens under separate processes and separate budgets. It’s a major weakness. Transport planning should be fully integrated. We need the transport agencies to stop asking, what roads do we need, and start asking, what are the best ways to get people (and freight) from here to there?

We’d make a lot more progress if proposals like light rail to Mt Roskill could be considered in that context. Little hasn’t announced this as Labour policy, but the indications are that he could do so.

As for Parmjeet Parmar, National’s list MP who wants that Mt Roskill seat, she weighed in on the light rail proposal by saying it wasn’t important and they should all be talking about far more immediate needs – like extra bus stops.

Improving existing services in Mt Roskill is certainly a good thing to do. But that’s what we have a council for. It’s their job. Parliament’s job is oversight of strategic planning for this fast-growing city. It would be nice to think MPs like Dr Parmar understood that.

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